TRAIN BLOG (WSAU) The two greatest train songs of all time are “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and “Take The ‘A’ Train”. The former is about a long-distance passenger train. The latter is about a New York City subway.
Duke Ellington’s “Take The ‘A’ Train” is usually performed as an upbeat jazz instrumental. It does have words. The best sung version is by Ella Fitzgerald.
“You must take the ‘A’ train
If you want to get to Sugar Hill in Harlem
Hurry, hurry now it’s comin’
Can’t you hear those rails a-thrummin’”
White New Yorkers would head to Harlem to hear jazz, ragtime, and the shows at the Apollo Theater where the black artists who were barred from the legitimate theaters performed. Sugar Hill was also so-named because that’s where people of all colors went to score cocaine and heroin. And the “A” train was, and is, the 8th Avenue express, running non-stop from 59th Street to 125th. Want a local stop somewhere in-between? Take the “C” train for a much slower trip uptown. The “A” switches to the center tracks, and speeds past a dozen stations while zooming uptown.
But the best part of taking the “A” train is at the other end of the line. The “A” train in Queens is the best subway ride in all of New York. The “A” is underground through Bedford-Stuyvesant, the worst neighborhood in Brooklyn. At 80th Avenue the subway comes out of its tunnel and goes into the elevated tracks. The further east the train goes, the deeper you travel into a safer, working class neighborhood. The last big station in Queen is Rockaway Boulevard. Most passengers get off here. A half-dozen bus lines meet passengers below the station.
The ‘A’ train braches off in two directions at Rockaway Boulevard. Most trains continue straight east and reach the end of the line three stops later at Lefferts Boulevard. But some ‘A’ trains make a sharp turn to the right and head south. The motorman lowers his cab window and pushes the button marked ‘Far Rockaway’ to align the switches. Wheels screech and moan as the train veers off the main line and onto the Rockaway branch. On a summer day you can smell the brake dust and the salt air from the Atlantic Ocean.
The Rockaway Branch used to be part of the Long Island Railroad, meaning it used to host real trains instead of subways. New York City bought the line when the LIRR went bankrupt. What used to be four tracks are now two. Part of the line to the north has already been demolished. There are two more stops at Aqueduct Racetrack and Kennedy Airport before the train reaches the sea.
The Rockaway Branch carries subways over a two mile stretch of open water through a series of viaducts and bridges. The train climbs a modest grade to reach a drawbridge. Then the train carries down almost to sea level. On a foggy day it almost appears that the train is floating on the water. Suddenly the land reappears as the subway pulls into Broad Channel station. It’s the most unique subway station anywhere. It appears to be in the middle of a marsh. Change here for the shuttle train to Rockaway Park, with its boardwalk and small amusement park. Stay on the ‘A’ to Far Rockaway, and your train heads back over the open water, eventually coming to the Rockaway peninsula, ending at an oceanfront development with a beach and some high rise apartments.
By all means, take the ‘A’ train… but it’s a better ride in the opposite direction.
Operations Manger, Midwest Communications-Wausau